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June 23, 2015

david brooks: i did not lose the pope, the pope lost me

Sometimes David Brooks is wrong in a very personal way, as in, Oh that poor David Brooks, trapped in some alternate universe of beigeness in which he can only long to wear a novelty T-shirt. And other times, David Brooks is wrong in a way that (accidentally, I presume) is illustrative of some greater flaw in our culture. Usually, when David Brooks inadvertently aligns with the Zeitgeist, it concerns a specifically David Brooks-ian topic, like punctuality, or hygiene.

But this week, in a column characteristically bizzaro, he accidentally strings two sentences together that are a big part of why we're doomed:

Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation.

Now, the premise of the column is that the Pope is just too dour in his recent encyclical, which basically indicts technology and free market capitalism, which is why a whole lot of people who wear a suit and tie while they write their think-pieces are bent out of shape.

But those thoughts, intended to show (I guess?) that all of that nasty sin that the Pope is all down on can actually have positive effects, instead show that David Brooks, and those that think like/agree with David Brooks, have some really really twisted ideas about virtue and vice. The target here is greed, as the Pope is talking about the free market economy, and, well, we're grownups here, but duh. But David Brooks still has his VCR so he can rewatch "Wall Street" once a year, and is not about to take lightly anyone clamping down on greed, even if it is God's single representative on earth. Surely there must be some equivalency, David Brooks thought, that I can employ rhetorically. But David Brooks needs another sin, one to compare greed to! But it's gotta be a good one, a sin that ranks right up there with greed! Oh, David Brooks has got it!


Of course we all agree that lust is one of the Seven Deadlies, and sure there's a doctrinal prohibition of carnal concupiscence in the Catholic Church, but, really? As far as walking around the world, trying to deal with people as the planet actually burns, lust is maybe about the last bad thing that I or anyone I know am worried about. But you and I and everyone we know are not David Brooks.

And then there is the good thing that is the unintended consequence of lust: childbearing. Some of us might call that a consequence of biology, but okay. But as bonkers as it is that David Brooks would say out loud that childbearing makes lust A-OK, it's even nuttier because in this rush to develop a moral argument that greed is good, it is revealed that David Brooks does not know what lust is. Biblically, lust is not, "Hey there, lawfully married wife, let's go smooch some and see if we accidentally procreate." Lust is not just the desire to get busy. Nope. As far as the Church is concerned, lust is interchangeable with covet. So basically when David Brooks brings up the miracle of conception, he is inadvertently implying the miracle of conception but with another man's wife. Which may be the opposite of the good thing that David Brooks was trying to invoke.

But the whole point of the exercise for David Brooks is not to reveal that he's got some pretty complicated feelings about getting busy and making babies, but rather to defend this free market economy that he loves so much, and so the unintentionally good byproduct of greed? That would be entrepreneurship and innovation. But here's the thing, and this is the thing that burns my grits not just about David Brooks but also the other free marketeers and very very specifically the technocapitalists of the alleys and valleys Silicon who think that "There's an app for that!" is somehow going to lift billions out of poverty. First of all, entrepreneurship and innovation are not actual tangible things. They are concepts, each a pretty little word signifying ineffable conceits. And if you break them down into actual descriptive English, it is a whole lot less impressive: "starting businesses" and "changing business practices."

And yet, and this would be the second of all, the words entrepreneurship and innovation are bandied about as intrinsically good and virtuous values almost as much as efficiency is, and it is markedly not the case. There are many many ways to measure and economy or an economic venture — gross profit, net profits, market capitalization, mean employee wage, median employee wage — take your pick, be you a University of Chicago Neoliberal or a pinko commie like me. But as you think to yourself, you will note that of all of the concrete and even whimsical metrics by which to measure a business, it is impossible to do so by "starting of new business" or "changing of business practice". Well, not impossible to do so, but ludicrous and silly to do so. But the pointlessness of the context of entrepreneurship and innovation has not stopped the fetishization of entrepreneurship and innovation in the least.

It's another case where deliberately opaque jargon becomes commonly accepted as axiomatic virtues because a bunch of privileged yo-yos with similar educations and backgrounds agreed that it would be so. And it is so, to the point that these terms are no longer used exclusively in incubators and the start-up conferences of the world, but to us rubes, as proof. Even as proof that the Pope is mean.

Of course we're used to David Brooks being solipsistic and sometimes obtuse and always living in some utopian Otherworld in which the wisdom of David Brooks (confusion about smooching notwithstanding) is accepted and admired, but it is not every day is which David Brooks is wrong is such a revelatory manner.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:35 AM